In Somalia, road building might lessen the immediate impact of piracy, but will actually enable even more people to participate in extortion and robbery. The solution to Somalia’s piracy troubles is more complicated but no less worthy of attention: reimagine the state, recognize Somaliland, and support functional self-governance.
In a forthcoming paper and recent post on The Monkey Cage, King’s College researchers Anja Shortland and Federico Varese propose building road infrastructure instead of focusing on statebuilding to combat piracy off Somalia’s troubled shores. At first glance, it is a rational economic solution to a serious and crippling problem: if people can trade amongst themselves, piracy won’t reign supreme as the source of income for many communities in the region. And roads are good for many more obvious reasons. Roads will allow people to access medical care, for example, and possibly widen trade opportunities within the greater East African region.
The researchers’ glaring omission, however, is what happens when the pirates take their crime on the roads. The authors are quick to point out that Somalia is largely governed by an informal tax system based on clan allegiance. The tax system, they write, more closely resembles extortion than a formal tax. But what happens when the tax income comes from a different source? Arguably, those with power will try to control the channels of transport by any means necessary to ensure they can maintain the income necessary to sustain their power—and the livelihood of their communities.
Many people with experience traveling in the region know that extortion on the road, from hijacking to corruption at government checkpoints is a scourge and hindrance to trade. With more goods moving by road in Somalia, more people will have an incentive to block that trade to extract their piece of the new influx of money to the interior.
How, then, can a sort of rule of law be enforced without a state—or state building?
The international community needs to give up the seemingly futile task of state building without abandoning its commitment to the rule of law. To do so, donor nations and institutions should effort to support existing structures insofar as they do not violate international law and human rights. This can be accomplished in two major ways:
1) Reimagine the state.
Many Somali communities are organized by clan rather than region. Despite their occasionally criminal means of obtaining income, Somali clan leaders benevolent dictators, distributing food and money to people under their domain and helping resolve intercommunity disputes. If the international community views these communities as microstates, they might have more success at building semi-formalized institutions that work for everyone—including women and other marginalized members of society.
2) Recognize Somaliland statehood.
Somaliland has long sought regocnition of its self-declared statehood. It is the most “developed” region of Somalia in part due to its commitment to a rule of law based in its own legal system, which is a hybrid of colonial codes from India from the time of British rule and Xeer, the system of collective justice in which elders enforce collective judgment based on a sort of common law based in community knowledge and values. Somalia has long fought the separation of Somaliland from the rest of the country because Somaliland is the only thriving region in the country. Recognizing Somaliland’s statehood may threaten and provoke Somalia and Puntland to institutionalize in a way that works for them in order to gain their own economic power again.
Somalia needs infrastructure and security. But simply building roads and ignoring the rule of law altogether will be disastrous. Instead, the international community should invest in helping Somalia make effective and fair use of existing community structures and create incentives for neighboring regions by recognizing Somaliland’s independence.